At a base down the road from Niagara Falls, a specialized unit from the New York Air National Guard had spent years preparing for one of the military’s grimmest missions: find and recover the bodies of those killed in a chemical attack, natural disaster or other mass tragedy.

But when their deployment orders arrived March 21, they were sent to do a job their practice sessions didn’t foresee.

New York City was facing a mounting emergency owing to the spread of covid-19, and it wasn’t just hospital emergency rooms and intensive care units facing a crisis. The city’s medical examiners, who pick up the bodies of those who die unattended by a physician or in unexplained circumstances, were on the verge of being overwhelmed.

“When we train, we never really think that it’s going to be more like real life, like a virus,” said Staff Sgt. Gabrielle Bellina, a 24-year-old member of the Niagara Falls unit who normally works as a nurse at an eldercare facility. “When we go out and train, it’s more like chemical warfare . . . so this was a real eye-opener.”

In normal times, the historic Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn performs four or five burials per day. Amid coronavirus, they have been doing twice as many. (Alden Nusser/The Washington Post)

Bellina and her fellow guardsmen have been carrying body after body out of New York City homes and apartment buildings, in some cases winding 200 pounds down the narrow staircases of walk-ups without an elevator.

For more than two weeks, they have been at it, pulling 12-hour shifts that run from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. and heading out in teams composed of two guardsmen and one New York medical examiner.

More than 28,400 members of the National Guard are deployed across the United States as part of the pandemic response, helping build makeshift hospitals, swabbing people at test sites and delivering masks, medical supplies and food. But few are undertaking a more difficult task than the airmen from Niagara Falls.

Video from Reuters and AP on April 9 showed laborers burying coffins on Hart Island in New York. (The Washington Post)

They are aiding the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, known as the OCME, which typically collects about 25 bodies for investigation in New York City on a normal day and now is retrieving as many as 150, said Gen. Joseph L. Lengyel, chief of the National Guard Bureau. The OCME has posted dozens of job advertisements in recent days in a scramble to further augment its staff.

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio (D), in a CNN interview on Wednesday, described what it meant for New York City to be retrieving 100 to 200 people who have died in their homes and other non-hospital locations. “I mean, think of what this means for the families, think of the pain they’re going through,” de Blasio said. “There’s no question that coronavirus is driving it. We never saw anything like this in normal times.”

The city’s funeral homes are overwhelmed.

“We’ve trained for the bird flu. We’ve trained for Ebola. Those nightmares never materialized. This nightmare materialized, and nobody was ready for it,” said John O. D’Arienzo, who runs a funeral home in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, and is president of the Metropolitan Funeral Directors Association. “Nobody was aware of the magnitude and the sheer volume.”

Skyrocketing numbers

Home to more than 8.5 million people, New York City is the worst hit area of the United States. As of Thursday, the city had seen 87,725 confirmed cases of covid-19, including 21,571 hospitalizations, and 4,778 deaths, according to the city’s health department.

Those statistics may not fully capture the number of New Yorkers dying at home.

Michael Lanza, a spokesman for the New York City Health Department, said every person with a lab-confirmed covid-19 diagnosis is being counted in the fatality numbers the city tabulates. The health department is working with medical examiners to include in their reports people whose deaths may have been related to covid-19 but didn’t received a lab-confirmed diagnosis, Lanza said.

Of all the military units that have shown up to help New York City’s medical examiners handle the dead, the group from Niagara Falls arrived first. They had been scheduled to travel to New York City anyway this spring for a training session with the medical examiner’s office. Instead, the guardsmen ended up rescuing the office as it faced one of its biggest crises since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Bellina, who joined the guard because her grandfather was in the military, was at her mother’s house having breakfast when she got the call to deploy. Days later, her team arrived in a midtown Manhattan that was eerily empty, where a few scattered people walked around in masks.

The team set to work the next day at a makeshift command center that the medical examiner’s office had set up near Bellevue Hospital and equipped with refrigerated trailers to store recovered bodies.

The Niagara Falls group quickly realized that without serious reinforcements, they and the medical examiner’s office were about to be overwhelmed.

“I think the biggest challenge is just seeing all of these numbers skyrocket and just trying to work together as a team and go out and get all of these deceased people,” Bellina said. “Now we have more teams, which has really helped take the load off.”

As of Wednesday, the U.S. military had assigned a total of 220 personnel to assist New York City in the collection of bodies, including 49 active-duty Army soldiers trained in mortuary affairs and 171 members of the New York Army and Air National Guard. In addition to a day shift, service members have begun helping man a night shift, as well.

The house calls aren’t necessarily always for those who have died of complications of covid-19. Guardsmen like Bellina are also helping recover those who die in other circumstances, such as an apparent suicide where she helped retrieve a man’s remains on one of her most difficult days.

“That was very hard to see,” she said.

The Niagara Falls unit, which the military calls a fatality search-and-recovery team, wears its uniforms under personal protective equipment and treats every case as if it could be covid-19.

The appearance of uniformed military personnel handling body bags on the streets of the city has unnerved some New Yorkers, a number of whom began taking pictures when members of the unit showed up at buildings in fatigues with the medical examiner.

“I think they see us come in with uniforms on and their initial thought is we’re here to take over and it’s really bad,” Bellina said. “We just say we’re here to help.”

'Very challenging'

To carry out the work, she and her fellow guardsmen have formed pairs based on their strengths.

Senior Airman Anita Walter, a 26-year-old member of the unit from North Tonawanda, N.Y., said she is 5-foot-2, so she is paired up with a larger guy in the group.

“He’s a big guy, but I have a stronger stomach,” Walter said.

“We train on this stuff, but it’s nothing like when you get thrown into it. I work out, but I’m no macho, I’m only 115 pounds,” she said, noting that so far the physical labor has been fine. “We practice all our safe lifting techniques, so I’m good on that end.”

Walter said the unit had trained extensively in search and recovery, but going into people’s homes and interacting with family members who have lost loved ones is incredibly sad. The smells and the places, she said, “something about seeing the real thing just hits you a little different.”

The guardsmen have been doing runs with long-standing medical examiners who Walter said have seen “everything in the book,” and mentally prepare them and assess the scene.

The officer in charge of the Niagara Falls unit, 39-year-old 1st Lt. Shawn Lavin, left behind his children, ages six months and 2½ , to oversee the mission. Lavin, who normally works as an Erie County personnel official and serves as a Democratic member of the Amherst, N.Y., town board, keeps tabs on the health and the spirits of the unit, which he said faced a steep learning curve.

“You take someone who has passed away with their loved one off a couch, off a chair, into a human remains bag and transport them here, it’s a very challenging situation, but I think my team has answered that call incredibly,” Lavin said in an interview from the makeshift command center.

“This situation, as sad as it is, this job is necessary — and everybody here is part of the solution, there is now a camaraderie building with the team that got here,” he said. “We can help them, and we can really make a difference.”

The group gets together each day and talks about what they have experienced, sharing the more difficult stories to help one another get through a mission that is necessary but often overlooked.

Bellina said they’ve become like a big family, and the negative aspects of the situation have reminded her of the importance of her own relationships, on the team and elsewhere.

“It helps to remember to cherish the people that you love and cherish moments with your friends and family,” she said. “That’s my big takeaway from this whole thing.”

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly identified the senior airman from North Tonawanda, N.Y. Her name is Anita Walter, not Anita Walker.